Exercise newbies: Have no fear

Looking to exorcise your inner exercise demons? No time like the present. Marlene Habib says it can be pretty easy to adopt a more active lifestyle.

It's easy to ease into the physical activity habit

Today is the day to exorcise your inner exercise demons.

Marlene Habib is a writer at She's also a Can-Fit-Pro certified fitness instructor who teaches outdoor exercise classes and does personal training through Be-Fit Boot Camp.

Some people think of any excuse they can to avoid getting off the chair or couch, away from computers and televisions. But the truth is, it's easy to adopt a more active lifestyle.

Those who seldom or never exercise but who really want to improve their lifestyle need to shed their misconceptions about what it takes to gain the body, health and well-being that moving even just a bit a day can achieve. That way, when I set you on a simple path to looking and feeling better (more on that later, with an easy seven-day plan), you'll stand a better chance at making exercise a lifetime habit.

And there are a lot of exercise newbies out there who aren't taking up regular physical activity.

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Nearly two-thirds of Canadians aren't active enough to keep healthy, according to Canada's Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Living. That means they're at increased risk of illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and the brittle-bone condition osteoporosis.

Not that I'm here to scare you into exercising. But with about a quarter of Canadians classified by the OECD as obese, a problem that's just getting worse, I'm all for doing whatever it takes to give you that kickstart to get moving.

Mashing the 'couch potato' mentality

The fear factor is what got Toronto financial adviser Allan Kalin, 69, to become an exercise convert — and he's an inspiring "it's never too late" example.

"I was happy to be a couch potato," the Toronto resident says. "But I had to face the facts: My high blood pressure was controlled by medication, and I was overweight."

The author coached Toronto resident Allan Kalin, 69, to a fitter life. ((Marlene Habib/CBC))
On the prodding of his wife, a lifelong exercise devotee, Kalin took me on as his trainer four years ago because he needed a push. In his condominium complex's gym, I started him on about 15 minutes of moderate treadmill walking two to three times a week, taught him to use the dumbbells and a weight machine, and guided him through top-to-bottom stretching.

He did this routine on his own as well — two other days a week. Over time, I had him add time, speed and intensity (raising the incline) to his treadmill work, and upped the amount of weight and number of exercises in his resistance routine.

Today, Kalin works out at least three days a week, his blood pressure is stable, he is at a healthier weight and is more careful about what he eats. He just doesn't feel right not being active: "It's become second nature and the results make it all worthwhile."

Hiring a trainer is what helped Kalin develop that exercise habit —  he needed a motivator — but you don't need to go to that length.

Nix the 'no pain, no gain' idea

There are other myths about exercise that should be put to rest.

It's too time-consuming: This 24/7 world is stressing people into thinking there aren't enough hours to accomplish everything. So they drive instead of walk or cycle to work, or eat at their desks instead of going for a stroll or climbing some stairs. Fact: As little as 30 minutes a day of uncomplicated movement, even broken up into 10-minute segments and built into your daily life, can boost your physical and emotional health — and reduce stress

Leighanne Dufour, a mid-40s insurance company worker in Toronto who has been doing my twice-weekly outdoor exercise classes for five years, says she didn't realize how far even two days a week of exercise could go.

"The thing is I thought you had to put in hours and hours a week to get anywhere, but I really only put in a couple of hours into the classes, and walk my dogs, and I have really changed my body," she says.

Doing too much too soon can also cause injuries — another prime reason people drop off the exercise path. Interval training — which combines high- and low-intensity walking, running or other cardiovascular (heart-pumping) work — is one approach that can help you get the most out of your training in minimal time.

Exercise hurts so bad: Ignore the "no pain, no gain" notion. Experienced exercisers may need the challenge of pushing themselves - they were once beginners too, and you may get to the veterans stage one day - but you don't have to pound your body to lose pounds and gain fitness benefits. The fitness industry has moved away from the idea that only vigorous exercise works.  Hardcore plans, like those promoted by workout gurus and reality shows like The Biggest Loser and The Last 10 Pounds Boot Camp, should be put in perspective.

Everyday folks don't have a full-time trainer on their butts, and it's more effective to ease into exercise and find a way to make it a part of your life — like brushing your teeth, going to work and sleeping. See your doctor before starting exercise if you have any health concerns or challenges, as Kalin did, but who now says, "I can say with certainty that I am quite fit now."

It costs big bucks: Truth is, you can do easy, effective exercise just using your own body weight. You don't need to join a gym, spend hundreds on videogame consoles like Nintendo Wii Fit or buy equipment — although once you get into the exercise habit, you might want to make such investments — as long as you put them to use. In Kalin's case, he and his wife live in a condo with a "reasonably equipped" fitness room, so he didn't have to make any other purchases to get exercising.

Depending on the type of activity you choose, you may only need to have a proper pair of running shoes or other footwear. And if you feel you really need equipment right away, try a couple of cans of soup (for dumb-bells), or buy an inexpensive exercise band that you can easily carry anywhere.

It's intimidating: Fitness fears include getting hurt by doing the wrong move, looking stupid and being judged by others.

"Now that I'm getting older, I don't expect my hamstrings to snap in half by stretching or anything, but I had a car accident a long time ago and was afraid of what I'd do to my back," says Tony Phillips, a 36-year-old business consultant in Windsor, Ont., who avoided exercise for a long time before taking up walking and stretching on his own.

Exercise newcomers should realize it's normal not to know how to go about exercising, especially if you're concerned about getting injured. So read articles like this one, weigh what you think may work for you, and try out a few things on your own, at home or outdoors (weather permitting). Simple is best - anyone can go for walks. If you have any physical challenges, there are chair exercises and instructional videos, for instance, that can be done at home to help work both your heart and upper body.

Next: 7 days to a lifetime of activity

Look for Part 2 of this feature: A week-long plan  that is easy but effective, has no or minimal cost, takes little time and can be done any time — during or after your workday, during hockey intermissions or even while watching TV.